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Where has the jazz gone?

Published 11:22am Thursday, June 21, 2012

I am an accidental jazz fan.

Jazz enthusiasts and musicians are struggling to find more people like me for the waning fan base through things like education. However, the problem may be in perception, not exposure.

My first notable encounter with jazz came at my grandmother’s. Every few months during my elementary school years, I would sift through the cedar chest, drawers, closets and shed at her home to look at what old treasures were stored away from the past.

On one of my treasure-hunting expeditions, I found a few old CDs of jazz greats. I was surprised to find any music at my grandmother’s among the seemingly endless collection of Lawrence Welk and hymn compilations.

I quickly put them in the CD player and was surprised to hear songs like Louis Armstrong’s “Jeepers Creepers” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

At that time — and for years to come — jazz seemed just like the knickknacks stowed away in my grandmother’s drawers: A thing of the past.

Outside a few chance listens, my next notable exposure to America’s art form was in classrooms. Despite my teacher’s best efforts and enthusiasm, jazz remained a history topic to me and my peers.

In the time of Bieber-fever and Lady Gaga antics, much of the American public views jazz as a history and humanities class topic.

This lack of connection to jazz isn’t anything new, as musicians and staunch fans have long discussed a revival.

Once the music of the nation, jazz has recently been a hot topic on blogs in the Huffington Post and Minnesota Public Radio, many written by Kurt Ellenberger.

The issue is that jazz audiences are shrinking and education efforts in schools have done little to quell the fall. Countless people and groups have asked how to attract listeners, but Ellenberger questions if anything can be done to attract listeners to a cognitively challenging style of music.

“How can we convince people to embrace music that is no longer part of the popular culture?” he asks in an NPR column.

The issue may be deep-rooted in perceptions.

What I failed to grasp on my first key exposures to jazz was the current state of the music.

Jazz is still alive; it hasn’t been abandoned in yesteryear. Proof can be found in the upcoming Twin Cities Jazz Festival June 28-30 in St. Paul. Plus, the Twin Cities still has spots like the Artist’s Quarter Jazz Club and the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant.

Think of the impression most people have of jazz: It’s seen not only as a thing of the past, but as something highbrow and reserved to hipster intellectuals.

I finally became a bona-fide jazz fan when I stumbled out “Bitches Brew” and “The Birth of Cool” by Miles Davis from my college library. When I went to checkout, I actually felt self-conscious. My perception was that only “certain people” listen to jazz.

Part of this perception problem may be education. In the early 20th century, jazz was rebellious and often frowned upon. Now it’s not only taught in schools as part of history, which — despite teachers’ best efforts — paints a subconscious picture of something musty and out of style.

Another key problem with jazz may be name recognition. How many jazz artists can you name? Now, how many of them are living and still playing? America’s jazz stars are all dead, and though there’s no shortage of talent, few big names have replaced the name recognition.

Until jazz produces known-commodities and can break free from the bounds of classrooms, it may be doomed to its current purgatory.

But there’s plenty of room for hope, just look what an artist like Michael Buble has done for his genre (a subset of jazz).

Want to take a listen? Here are my jazz recommendations
1. “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis

2. “Ah Um” by Charles Mingus

3. “Duke Ellington & John Coltrane” by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane

4. “Live! At the Village Vanguard” by John Coltrane

5. “Trio ‘65” by Bill Evans (The video below isn’t the album version, but it’s a cool live take)

6. “Astral Meditations” by Alice Coltrane

7. “Lady in Satin” by Billie Holiday

8. “Thelonious Himself” by Thelonious Monk

9. “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac” by Dizzy Gillespie

10. “At the Pershing: But Not for Me” by Ahmad Jamal

—Want to listen to good summary compilations? Check out the soundtracks to Ken Burns’ documentary “Jazz”



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